Understanding Detail in Photography
You’ve seen the images and thought, “wow, that’s sharp.” Or maybe you’ve noticed it in your own images and wondered, “why is this image so much sharper than the others?” Here’s why:
Actual Detail vs. Perceived Detail
Actual detail is, as it sounds, just how much of something you can see in your image. You know it when you see it: the pores of skin, the individual eyelashes, the reflections in water, etc. When they are not there, our eyes can fill it in (or dismiss it), so we still understand the image, but that mental act of filling in is just not quite as satisfying as actually seeing it. Many things can keep your image from having actual detail. Focus and depth of field are ways we un-detail something on purpose. This helps separate one element of your photo from another. But for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll assume this is about the detail in the part of the image you are focused on, as that is the part that gets people to say, “so sharp, brah!” And any camera with a decent sensor and good lens has the ability to produce that impressive level of detail. The kind where you seem to be able to zoom into an eyeball forever and still see an impressive amount of information.
It’s also worth noting that when your lens is wide open (it’s shallowest depth of field), sometimes that will decrease the actual detail even in your in-focus areas. So, if you’re a 1.2/1.4 shooter, just know that you may have to dial up more of the following suggestions to get that pop. Or stop down a bit.
Now, perceived detail is something else. And it’s tricky. There’s a lot of words to describe essentially the same thing: when you see sliders and knobs that promise sharpness, contrast, structure or brilliance… these are all about the perception of detail. Even tangential things like saturation and grain are contributors to your perception of a photo’s detail. In post production, detail is a catch-all term, like saying a meal is flavorful (cooking is my favorite photography analogy). And, funnily enough, the perception of detail often comes at the loss of actual detail. But that’s best shown, not described. We’ll start with this crop of a raw image that has as much detail as anyone could possibly want in an image:
Now, let’s do a little experiment. I’m going to crop into the eye and I’m going to show you, side-by-side, what the raw eye looks like next to a “detail-enhanced” (using sliders and knobs in Lightroom) version of the same eye:
So, here’s what’s tricky about it: The right image is perceived as having more detail despite having less (or in some areas the same). The obvious place to see it is in the white of the eye, which has less information on the right than it does on the left. But it’s true throughout. I’ll get into why below, but for the moment, just take in that there’s two types of detail — that which is actually in your image and that which the mind perceieves.
Light is the one thing you really need to fully understand when getting actual detail in your photo. The principle is very simple, just consider how much you can see in the dark versus the day. That basic principle is what your camera is dealing with at micro levels, all the time. Less light, less detail. More light, more detail. And small changes can have drastic effects on detail. Take in the following:
Hard to believe, but this is the same guy, shot with the same camera and lens at the same settings only seconds apart. And both are focused right on his eye. The difference — in the one on the left, he’s facing away from the sun and on the right he’s facing into it. And if I had him in the studio with a big softbox on him (as I did in the first image above), you’d see even more detail.
Light is the big differentiator and this is why there are so many camera settings that allow you to get more light into your image. The more light, the more detail. And little bits matter a lot, as you can see.
So, principle #1: If you want standout detail actually in your image, flood with light.
The next two principles are about how to create more perceived detail:
So, back to those the two eyes:
Essentially what you’re experiencing is contrast. Contrast eliminates middle tones, so light pixels and dark pixels stand out against each other in more pronounced ways. Structure, and brilliance and a lot of other tools, essentially provide that same contrast but to smaller areas, finding edges and getting them to stand out. Think of looking at a black and white checkerboard versus a checkerboard of gray tones.
That’s basically what’s going on. Contrast, whether applied generally or locally, has the effect of making certain elements stand out from a distance. But it’s an effect.
Consider the following two versions of the same image:
The first image is straight out of the camera, the second is a quick and typical enhancement in Photoshop (curves and local contrast applied through a high pass process). Nothing too much, just some slight tweaking. At first glance, the second one has the effect of feeling more detailed. But if you were to really pixel peep the images, the exact opposite has taken place. You can tell easily without zooming in simply by glancing at the dark parts of her hair. As you’ll see, there’s more actual detail in the first shot, even though there is more perceived detail in the second. It’s got that pop that contrast gives.
Principle #2: General contrast (contrast sliders, curves, levels) and local contrast (structure, brilliance and detail sliders) will make the viewer experience more detail.
One of the main effects of using contast, as discussed, is that it darkens your dark areas. And while that can increase the experience of detail in much of your image, it can decrease it in others — primarily the dark areas, of course. So, one of the most common ways to offset that in post is to increase the shadows. Take a look here:
The image on the left is our enhanced image from above, just using contrast-increasing techniques. The one on the right is the same image but raising the shadows. It’s a bit of a drastic version of it, so that you can see the effect — if I were really doing some careful post work, I’d do it more subtly, or only in spots. But here you can see the effect. The hair suddenly comes to life here and I’m experiencing the details of the hat, shirt and other areas that felt lost in shadow in the previous image.
Principle #3: The appearance of detail in the shadows adds to your overall sense of the image’s detail.
So, that’s a bit more detail on detail. Get actual detail by finding the light and maybe stopping down a bit, then add a bit of contrast and boost the shadows in post so the people can truly experience it.